There is no sound more terrifying, more nightmarish, than the countdown that signifies the final five seconds before Sonic the Hedgehog drowns. It has haunted gamers since 1991, when they first found themselves in the depths of the Labyrinth Zone; an underwater maze cleaved into the decaying ruins of an ancient civilisation, where glittering crystal stalactites hung from the ceiling and spears leapt from the stairs. Players loathed this level, still do to this day, which makes one wonder why Sega included such a level in every subsequent 2D Sonic game. The one in Sonic Mania is Hydrocity Zone, from Sonic 3, a better level set in a stone reservoir with an underground waterpark beneath it. But “better” is a relative term. That countdown hasn’t changed.
Since Sonic has become such a laughing stock, it can be difficult to believe that the blue hedgehog once rivalled Mario as the definitive video game mascot. This was in a gentler time, when video games were basically all 2D side-scrolling platformers, and the home console war was between Nintendo and Sega, and both companies only made games. But it was a time I grew up in. It was a time I adored. My childhood was 16-bit; Sonic’s games, as far as I was concerned, were masterpieces. Sonic Mania, then, is a game aimed directly at me, and at people like me, for whom the word “SEGA”, bellowed at a game’s start screen, had roughly the same impact as the words “I finished” might have to a twenty-something. Satisfaction. Pride. Bliss.
I found Sonic Mania to be a masterpiece of nostalgic excitement; a giddy, pixelated love letter to a time of my life that sped by quicker than the blue blur himself. I also found it to be a maddening exercise in controller-snapping frustration. That countdown, after all, hasn’t changed.
Designed by Christian Whitehead with help from Simon “Headcannon” Thomley and PagodaWest, Sonic Mania remasters and remixes classic levels from Sonic the Hedgehog all the way through to Sonic & Knuckles, and includes three brand-new original stages built on the Retro Engine – a proprietary technology developed specifically for recreating features from the 32-bit console generation and before. It’s a sightseeing tour through all the 2D games that were considered good before that pesky third dimension and years of outlandish bullshit – including an interspecies love story and a giant cat – weighed the franchise down. Behold, says Sonic Mania, what Sonic once was. Witness the deranged magnificence of those classic stages and rejoice, for Sonic is back.
And Sonic certainly is back – but are we glad to see him? When the game begins in Green Hill Zone, the opening level from the original game, and you see those rolling hills, that verdant imagery, and you hear the stage’s upbeat, timeless theme song, all you want to do is hug the little twerp. It looks and plays just how you remember. This is a shameless shot of nostalgia right to the heart, I know, but what better way to revisit Sonic’s halcyon days than to start at their beginning? But wait. Things aren’t quite the same. There’s a dead-end here where there shouldn’t be, and over there, a power-up TV lifted from Sonic 3. Chunks of familiar track have been uprooted and playfully rearranged, festooned with new bells and whistles. The familiar has been rendered unfamiliar, and these aren’t thoughtless alterations, but carefully-considered quirks and flourishes thought up and implemented by true Sonic aficionados.
Rediscovering these classic stages was, at least for me, more compelling than discovering new ones. And it isn’t just the thrill of seeing props and enemy types transported into layouts that didn’t previously include them, although that’s a consistently-pleasing feature. No, its things like Sonic 2’s Chemical Plant Zone now including troughs of blue gel that you can harden into bouncy green gel by jumping on giant syringes; or Sonic & Knuckles’s Flying Battery Zone suddenly battering the giant vessel’s enormous hull with increasingly inclement weather. There are mischievous additional effects applied to power-ups, too, such as the lightning shield now gluing you to the ceiling in certain areas, and the flame shield burning through wooden platforms and setting flammable substances alight.
This isn’t to say that the new stuff isn’t also excellent. They retain that mercurial helter-skelter design and the same aesthetic quirkiness. Mirage Saloon Zone is a desert level with all sorts of gorgeous detail and period signifiers: Wanted posters, saloon bars, spinning stools, giant piano keys, and a climax set in an Old West theatre. Garden Press Zone is a bonkers fusion of Feudal Japanese architecture and industrial printing apparatus, with reels of newsprint unspooling through the backdrop layers. If you weren’t as familiar with the series, you’d be forgiven for not realising which of the levels were loving recreations and which were original designs.
Even the setup is refreshingly scaled-back. There are some vague allusions to time travel, but the particulars are all familiar: Dr. Robotnik – sorry, Eggman – has pinched the Chaos Emeralds, and for some reason scattered them throughout abstract racing challenges. It’s up to Sonic (who can use the additional effect of the various power-ups), his long-suffering vulpine sidekick, Tails (who can swim and fly), and his thuggish echidna mate, Knuckles (who can glide, climb and sometimes punch things) to retrieve the shiny trinkets and bop their way through Eggman’s robot minions while snaffling clusters of big gold rings. You might have forgotten this, but those rings scattering from your character when they get hit, forcing you to recollect them before you’re killed, is still ingenious design.
It’s just as well, really, as you’ll spend a lot of time scooping up those dropped rings after yet another high-speed collision with some robotic beastie or environmental trap. I don’t know if I’d forgotten this or if as a thick little nipper I simply didn’t realise it, but the design of 2D Sonic is inherently self-defeating. The levels are vast, ornate rollercoasters that’ll plunge you through the floor, spiral their way through the ground and then launch you, swirling, into the air, all at a speed so fast that Sonic has curled up into a ball and is being carried by his own momentum rather than by the player. But these levels are also elaborate death traps full of whirring turbines, slamming pistons, jets of flame, arcs of lightning, and spiky maws. They encourage exploration – it’s the only way to find power-ups, secret areas, and the bonus stages. Yet is there any game less-suited to stately progress than a 2D Sonic? You can never tell if the next turn will reveal a cluster of hidden power-ups, or a tube that’ll suck you through the infrastructure and send you loop-de-looping all the way across the map.
These bruising contradictions are central to the identity of these games – always have been. But why? What is it about this particular fusion of death-defying acrobatics and punishingly unfair obstacles that resonates with people who otherwise aren’t at all self-destructive? And it is a weirdly self-destructive compulsion, that of submitting to this game’s odd rules and style and not acknowledging what it so frequently is – which is quite clearly a bit of dodgy design.
Don’t get your knickers in a twist – I’m not saying it’s all dodgy design. Each of the games that Sonic Mania pilfers from have their individual moments of sheer genius, and as a collection Sonic Mania has a profound knack for selecting the ones which are most representative of what, exactly, we love about this character and his games. But the sheer velocity that Sonic can sometimes reach means that it can become impossible to tell, without trial and error, how to move in order to avoid hazards. This is not platforming, nor is it fair or compelling difficulty. Each stage has an arbitrary ten-minute time limit – why? I never noticed this before, but here, now that the levels are much longer and more intricate, and the boss fights are much longer and of a more modern, multi-stage sensibility, it isn’t unusual to be thwarted by the clock. You start to resent all those hysterical minutes you spent earlier in the level being pinballed up and down the wrong tube. You start to resent the bosses, too, which are lengthy while still being laughably easy, and often visual treats rather than tests of the player’s skill or the game’s mechanics. Almost all of them, so long as they can be reached, can be bullied and bludgeoned by exploiting the rings mechanic, relentlessly bopping the machine’s underside as you eat hits and allow the rings to fall back on your head.
All these things, along with the underwater stages, are components of classic Sonic games that nobody enjoys, but that fans of the series – like me – simply learned to deal with. Now that I’m older, I have to wonder why I ever put up with it, and certainly why I would continue to now. Having Sonic wait around, stationary, for a bubble of life-saving air that he can gulp down, is not only annoying, but runs contrary to what Sonic is supposed to be about. And a limited lives system, in 2017? It’s a tough sell.
You know what, though? As much as it annoys me, I still don’t care. Because as soon as Sonic resurfaces, as soon as you start to tumble down the next gentle slope and it suddenly, violently propels you into a series of loops, ramps, springboards, tunnels, tubes and bumpers, that old magic is back again, just as powerful, just as potent. At some point you simply have to lay the pad down and gawp at the screen in astonishment. And to think, people wonder why Sonic – that industry embarrassment, with his terrible 3D games and his awful chums – was ever popular in the first place. This is why. Nope, that drowning countdown hasn’t changed. But Sonic Mania makes you believe that Sonic himself never changed either.